When the Emperor Was Divine

by Julie Otsuka

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What impact does racism have on the children in When the Emperor Was Divine?

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Written by American author Julie Otsuka in 2002, When the Emperor Was Divine is a historical fiction novel set during World War II. The novel begins in 1942 and tells the story of a Japanese American family who lived in California but is sent to a concentration camp in the Utah desert.

During World War II, more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans were unjustly sent to concentration camps, as the United States government feared treachery and disloyalty. In the 1980s, a congressional review judged that this was a result of racism rather than a fear for security.

Otsuka highlights how racism eliminates identity and personality by not giving the members of the family names. She simply refers to the central characters as The Man, The Woman, The Girl, and The Boy. Before they are sent to the concentration camp, The Girl and The Boy are "Americanized" children who love their country and enjoy American popular culture. The Girl, ten years old, is a happy and enthusiastic child who loves American music and clothing:

She was ten years old and she knew what she liked. Boys and black licorice and Dorothy Lamour. Her favorite song on the radio was "Don't Fence Me In."

The Boy, eight years old, loves animals, nature, comic books, and baseball.

When they are forced to leave their homes and are interred in the concentration camps, both The Girl and The Boy fight against their oppression by rebelling. The Girl starts to smoke cigarettes and spends long periods of time away from her family. The Boy asserts his Japanese identity by whispering Emperor Hirohito's name under his breath. When they are released from the camps, they become Americanized again, as they fear a return to the camp.

Nothing's changed, we said to ourselves. The war had been an interruption, nothing more. We would pick up our lives where we had left off and go on. We would go back to school again. We would study hard, every day, to make up for lost time. We would seek out old classmates. ... We would listen to their music. We would dress just like they did. We would change our names to sound more like theirs. And if our mother called out to us on the street by our real names we would turn away and pretend not to know her. We would never be mistaken for the enemy again!

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